No More Solitary for Kids in Federal Prison


On Monday, President Barack Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, acknowledging the devastating effects of isolation on mental health.

Last summer, President Obama ordered the Department of Justice to conduct a review on the nation’s over-reliance on solitary confinement. The report came back offering ways to better protect the health and well-being of federal inmates by greatly limiting solitary confinement.

The president said his administration will adopt the recommendations in the report, which include banning the use of isolation as punishment for low-level offenders, expanding out-of-cell time for those held in solitary, and building separate and less-restrictive spaces for mentally ill inmates and those in “protective custody,” who would normally be held in solitary confinement. The changes have the potential to impact the lives of approximately 10,000 federal prisoners.

President Obama wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post explaining why solitary confinement reform is so crucial.

Obama pointed to the story of Kalief Browder, whose inability to post $3,000 bail led to a three-year stint at Rikers Island, most of which was spent in solitary confinement. Browder came out of Rikers and isolation and struggled for three years with mental illness and the aftereffects of prolonged isolation. Browder tried to kill himself several times, finally succeeding in June of last year. He was 22-years-old.

Here’s a clip from Obama’s op-ed:

Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences. It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior. Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones. Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses.

The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance. Those who do make it out often have trouble holding down jobs, reuniting with family and becoming productive members of society. Imagine having served your time and then being unable to hand change over to a customer or look your wife in the eye or hug your children.

As president, my most important job is to keep the American people safe. And since I took office, overall crime rates have decreased by more than 15 percent. In our criminal justice system, the punishment should fit the crime — and those who have served their time should leave prison ready to become productive members of society. How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.

That’s why last summer, I directed Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and the Justice Department to review the overuse of solitary confinement across U.S. prisons. They found that there are circumstances when solitary is a necessary tool, such as when certain prisoners must be isolated for their own protection or in order to protect staff and other inmates. In those cases, the practice should be limited, applied with constraints and used only as a measure of last resort. They have identified common-sense principles that should guide the use of solitary confinement in our criminal justice system.

The Justice Department has completed its review, and I am adopting its recommendations to reform the federal prison system…

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